A Small Town Gave Up Tackle Football. It Came Storming Back.

Ken Belson
The football locker room at Marshall High School, in Marshall, Texas, Sept. 14, 2019. (Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times)

MARSHALL, Texas — One evening last spring, a retired doctor named James Harris carried a pickle jar filled with bright red Jell-O to Marshall’s school board meeting.

He shook it up so the Jell-O sloshed against the glass, a representation, he told the school board members, of what happens to the brain during a hard hit in football and what can happen to those who are allowed to play the sport at a young age.

“The brain is like this Jell-O in the bottle,” he told them. “When the head hits the ground, it hits front and back, and swishes, twists, sloshes and stretches inside the skull.”

It was a dramatic presentation. It was also futile.

The board listened and then voted unanimously on the matter at hand, to bring back tackle football for seventh graders, which it had banned only five years ago.

Football is a powerful, cultural force in Marshall, a city of about 24,000 people in East Texas, where high school games can draw half of the city’s residents and church ends early on Sundays when the Dallas Cowboys are playing.

Still, even Marshall has not been immune to the nationwide debate over whether and how young children should play tackle football — and the shifting demographics of who is left playing it.

The most urgent battle lines are forming along the first years of tackle football, including middle school in many parts of the country, even as football remains by far the most popular sport in the United States. But high school participation has dropped more than 10% in the past decade, even in football hotbeds like Texas, Ohio and Florida, as young athletes and their families seek alternatives they perceive as safer.

Despite all the warnings about the risks of tackle football in Marshall, two youth leagues popped up to replace the programs that had been disbanded in recent years. And this year, the school district’s new athletic director, Jake Griedl, who is also the high school football coach, persuaded the school board to restart seventh-grade football, too. He reassured trustees that the game was safer now because of new rules, more medical attendants at games and expanded training for coaches in modern tackling methods and concussion protocols.

“Anything you can do to ease the minds of parents is good,” Griedl said this fall. “People don’t realize it’s safe.”

There was another reason for restoring the program: Some parents felt young players were less prepared when they joined the eighth-grade team — an important feeder for the high school squad — because they were not as practiced at hitting.

“You can have a kid now, if he doesn’t get hit until eighth grade, it could ruin him,” said Spencer Taylor, whose sons, Raijon, 12, and Spencer II, 14, have played for about six years.

In Marshall, residents extol what they see as football’s virtues: the discipline and hard work of players who start practicing in the stifling summer heat. They also appreciate the way coaches, through tough love, teach accountability.

But more and more, those values have been challenged.

On visits to Marshall since 2014, I have witnessed how residents, coaches and educators have questioned the safety of a sport they cannot imagine living without and seen how their neighbors have fought to save it, even the seventh grade team, the youngest scholastic tackle team.

There are naysayers, like Harris. And some football parents have nudged their boys into soccer, baseball or basketball instead.

Yet many residents here remain committed to football. The sport helps shape the identity of their city even as the makeup of football rosters has shifted under their feet. Football in Marshall, as it is across America, is increasingly dominated by black players, whose families are generally poorer and prioritize the opportunities for college scholarships that the sport provides.

Nationally, more than 75% of high school football players in 2006 were white. That figure fell to 56% by last year.

The shift is similar in Marshall. In 1990, when the Mavericks won a state high school championship, black students made up 55% of the varsity team and 40% of the student body. Now, the school district is 37% Latino, 36% black and 24% white. Because soccer is a bigger draw for Latino children and white students are increasingly taking up other sports or transferring to schools in other towns with stronger academics, blacks now account for about three-quarters of the varsity football team.

Education and income levels are other factors. According to a New York Times analysis, in 2006 white students accounted for nearly 70% of high school football players whose parents did not have a college degree. In 2018 they accounted for 30% of those players. African Americans represented just under 20% of those players in 2006. Now they account for more than 40% of players in that category.

“Football has saved a lot of kids,” said Charles Jernigan, known as Skeet, a pastor at the True Vine Baptist Church and a confidant to coaches. “Some people don’t want to say that, but that’s just the way it is. They become a good football player, they don’t want to fail. Football is their way out.”

Indeed, after Marshall canceled its seventh-grade program in 2014, a half-dozen or so families, some of them black, sent their sons to play for schools in nearby towns each year. Many of them did not return to Marshall for eighth grade, alarming coaches who felt they were losing some of their best players.

“Bringing back seventh-grade football will help stem the tide,” Griedl said.

A Young Star Rises

From his family’s perspective, Raijon Sims might be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the school board’s decision to reinstate tackle football. Rai Rai, as he is known, entered seventh grade this year.

Raijon played running back and cornerback in youth football, but tried out for quarterback on the seventh-grade team.

Spencer Taylor, Raijon’s father, coached him on his youth team, one that had started when the local Boys and Girls Club was about to abandon tackle football. Taylor rearranges his work schedule on game days so he can watch Raijon and his other son, Spencer II, who plays on the ninth-grade team. He sits in the top row of the bleachers and makes videos of Raijon’s games, then watches them with him later to critique his performance.

Taylor has heard the concerns about the safety of tackle football. But in his view, Marshall never should have abandoned the seventh-grade program because not having a school team only delayed when the players learned how to hit and be hit.

“When we did a hitting drill on the Lil’ Mavs,” Taylor said, referring to the youth team, “Raijon got hit by a larger kid and got up and said it didn’t hurt. I said, ‘That’s as bad as it gets.’”

Taylor still helps coach the Lil’ Mavs, the youth program Raijon played for, and aggressive play is often encouraged.

“Take all your anger out on the other team,” said Darius Brightman, a coach of 11- and 12-year-olds on that team. “You hit and then you hit. I think you all play better when you hit.”

DeMarcus George, who played defensive end at Marshall High School and coaches the 9- and 10-year-olds, said football was a stabilizing force for many players, some of whom live in single-parent homes or with foster parents.

“We tell them, ‘If you can’t pass your classes, you can’t respect your teachers and parents, you can’t play’,” George said.

George and the other coaches see it as their job to prepare the players to one day join the high school team.

“If you don’t make it here, you’re not going to make two-a-days over there at the high school,” said Emory McCowan, the head coach for the 11- and 12-year-old players.

Clarence Haggerty, one of the founders of the Lil’ Mavs, said the youth teams have grown steadily since they began in 2016. Most of the boys come from the black community. Most Latinos, who make up the fastest-growing segment of Marshall’s population, are gravitating more toward soccer, in part because of concerns about the safety of football.

Jose Garcia started Marshall FC, a youth soccer club, this year and quickly gathered 42 children, most of them Latino.

Trip Billeaud, 12, was one of the recruits. His parents had refused to let him play tackle football.

“I see concussions in every sport,” said his mother, Joanie Billeaud, a pediatric nurse practitioner. “But football is designed to hit your head. I just can’t do it.”

Making Football Safe?

Many involved in football in Marshall say they are concerned about player safety. Coaches take classes to learn how to teach tackling with an emphasis on using the shoulder to tackle, not the head, though it is a matter of dispute among health professionals that it is safer.

“Keeping your kid out of football is not a black or white issue,” Harris, the retired doctor, said. “It has to do with perceiving the danger.”

Still, these efforts helped persuade the school board to reintroduce seventh-grade football. Many of the board members reasoned that boys would continue to play football anyway, so it would be better if they were taught by trained coaches instead of overeager fathers guiding youth teams.

“Who do you want coaching your kid in seventh grade, the one who’s trained or the one who wants to win the Super Bowl?” said Cathy Marshall, a trustee who voted to shut the program in 2014 but reversed course last spring.

Civic pride also played a role. One morning in September, on the day of their home opener, players on the seventh-grade football team at Marshall Junior High School filed into the cafeteria and formed a line so their coaches could fit them with red clip-on bow ties.

Coach G, as he is called, said it reflected the team’s sense of purpose.

“At the end of the day, people love the game,” he said.

Indeed, Griedl, the district’s athletic director, started the Legacy Campaign to raise money to upgrade the high school weight room; refurbish the football, basketball and volleyball locker rooms; add a lounge for the varsity football players; and equip the new seventh-grade team. In a few months, he and boosters raised about $150,000 from residents and businesses.

Marshall and her husband, Ernie, were among the donors who had their names etched on the new weight machines.

At 5 p.m. on the day of the seventh-grade team’s home opener, the captains from Marshall and the opposing team, Judson Middle School, met at midfield. Marshall won the coin toss, but got off to a rough start when a lineman was missing on the first play. Then Marshall’s defenders were unable to stop Judson’s running back, who ran for several scores.

At halftime, Gilliard lit into his team. “If you all want to play defense for us, you got to hit,” he said. “You got to be physical. You got to stick.”

The second half wasn’t much better. Raijon’s 7-yard touchdown run accounted for Marshall’s lone score in a 20-6 loss. His season ended two weeks later when a teammate fell on his foot in practice, breaking his ankle. But he was already thinking about next season.

That attitude would not surprise Mac Abney, the referee, who understood football as more than a sport around Marshall.

“Football is not all about who’s the strongest,” Abney said. “Football is a path out of situations people are born into.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company